Wednesday, June 17, 2009

On Rating Documentaries

When I watch a movie for the first time, I have a little post-game ritual that I follow. First, I check the film's Wikipedia entry, for any interesting tidbits about production, alternate versions, etc. Next, I head over to the Internet Movie Database and dig out three or four reviews from trusted sources. Finally, after I read those, I work through some of the user comments about the movie on IMDB and at Netflix. All this helps me order my thoughts about the movie and, ultimately, rate it at Netlix (my ratings, and usually a little blurb, show up on my Facebook page).

That process is often groan inducing when it comes to documentaries. One of the neat things about reading lots of different opinions about a movie is that other people can see the same things you do in a film, but find them to be flaws rather than charms (and vice versa). When talking about fiction, you can generally figure that a 1-star rating at Netflix means that person thinks the movie sucks.

Not so with documentaries, necessarily. Lots of people tend to get too wrapped up in the subject of the doc, rather than the film itself, when rating it. Case in point, Man from Plains, which the girlfriend and I watched over the weekend. Directed by Jonathan Demme, it's an account of the book tour Jimmy Carter went on after Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid was released. The book generated a lot of criticism (from the title, more than anything else, it seems) and thus the tour was more eventful than most. It was fairly limited in scope, not dealing with any of Carter's presidency, aside from the Camp David Accords. It did take the view that Carter is a Good Man (tm), however.

I gave the film 3 stars out of 5 at Netflix, for being a serviceable enough doc that could have been much more interesting. Lots of others felt the same, but two groups skewed the ratings just a bit. One group consisted of unabashed Carter supporters, who gave the film 5 stars because of its "star." The other gave the film 1 star and rattled off a string of Carter's sins in office. Neither group really talked about the movie which, you know, is what they're supposed to writing about.

That's not an isolated incident. Sometimes, people are convinced that the story is so important that it needs to be told, even where the film can't tell it in a coherent fashion. Other films, well put together and even artistic gems, get slammed because of their subject. That's not the way it's supposed to work, folks. Sometimes a good film about a bad person is just as enlightening (or, gods forbid, entertaining) as a good film about a good person.

Focus on the movie, not the man/woman/event/etc. portrayed therein, OK?

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